By Deacon Nick Donnelly
The impoverished state of the Catholic faith and the Church in Ireland has been exposed by the large majority voting to legalise same-sex “marriage”. I have heard reports from the Irish Diaspora of faithful Catholics being in a state “beyond shock” at the enormity of Ireland’s betrayal of marriage and the repudiation of the Church. A friend told me that she thought that the “yes” vote was such a serious desertion of the Faith by so many Catholics that it could be one of the worst events in modern Irish history. Another friend described the “yes” vote as the greatest possible insult to past generations of Irish Catholics who had sacrificed so much, even their lives, out of fidelity to the Faith and the Church. Around the world many are asking the same question, “how could this have happened to Ireland?”
During this time when so many of the faithful are crying out in distress it is good to be able to turn to the See of St. Peter for guidance. Soon after the vote Cardinal Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, described the result of the referendum not only in terms of a national tragedy but as also a tragedy for humanity. He told reporters:
“I was deeply saddened by the result. The Church must take account of this reality, but in the sense of reinforcing its commitment to evangelization. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity. The family remains at the centre and we have to do everything to defend it and promote it.”
Preparing for the Shock of Apostasy
But more than this, we could ask the question, has Pope Francis been preparing us for the possibility of such a catastrophe befalling the Church? On two occasions the Holy Father, unusually for a reigning pope, has recommended a modern novel as a key to understanding the forces at work in society and the Church. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, published in 1907, describes a world set in the future where triumphant secularism has pushed the Church and Catholics to the margins of society. The events of the novel are set in a time when systematic secularist propaganda, delivered through parliament, schools and media, has created a pervasive sceptical humanism that leads to wide-spread apostasy among the last remaining ranks of Catholics, and most shockingly among priests.
It is this theme of apostasy in the face of secularism in Benson’s novel that has been the focus of Pope Francis’ reflections. During a homily given in November 2013 the Holy Father spoke of Mgr. Benson writing about “the spirit of the world that leads to apostasy, almost as though it were a prophecy, as though he envisioned what would happen”.
Pope Francis’s analysis of apostasy
Pope Francis sets out an analysis of apostasy which helps us understand the forces in the Irish Church that resulted in the “yes” vote. Apostasy occurs when the people of God abandon our traditions and identity out of a preference for “worldly proposals”. He characterises such disloyalty among Catholics as a form of adultery that is prepared to negotiate away the “essence of our being: loyalty to the Lord.” Cardinal Burke sees the “yes” vote in these terms, describing it as “defiance of God”.
The Holy Father is clear that the disloyalty that is characteristic of apostasy “is a fruit of the devil who makes his way forward with the spirit of secular worldliness”. Pope Francis identifies a sign of this “spirit of secular worldliness” as the “uniformity of hegemonic globalization, a uniformity of thought born of worldliness”. There were many examples of intolerance towards people proposing the traditional vision of marriage and the family during the referendum campaign as if, for some, accepting same-sex “marriage” was the only possible option.
Pope Francis warns that the “spirit of worldliness” comes out of a sinful root, “out of wicked men capable of intelligent persuasion” who seek progress at all costs. At heart it is the attitude of the immature, which Pope Francis calls, the “spirit of adolescent progressivism”, that “seductively suggests that it is always right, when faced with any decision, to move on rather than remaining faithful to one’s own traditions”. The Holy Father advises that we guard ourselves from going down the path of adolescent progressivism because it always leads to the “culture of death”, as depicted in Mgr. Benson’s Lord of the World. Pope Francis warns:
“We would also do well to ponder the consequences of their infidelity, to think about the death sentences, the human sacrifices which followed thereafter. Do you think there are no human sacrifices today? There are many, many of them. And there are laws that protect them”.
Following the “yes” vote there were immediate calls in the Irish media for a further referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution that protects the sanctity of life of the unborn, already weakened by Kenny’s abortion law.
The Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland
The Irish Association of Catholic Priests [ACP], which claims to represent a third of priests in Ireland, took a neutral position regarding the Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ referendum. A statement issued by the leadership team of the ACP exhorted priests “not to direct their parishioners to vote Yes or No.” However, members of the ACP leadership team then went on to prominently advocate support for a “yes” through the media. In my previous article, Is This the Death of the Irish Church? I listed the prominent priests who misused their positions of leadership in the Church to support the ‘yes’ campaign. Fr Flannery explained why he would be voting “yes” in an article in the Irish Independent in early May. He wrote:
“Having considered the question that is being presented to us on this occasion, and after having listened to the debate so far and given it a great deal of thought, I will be voting Yes. I do not consider this decision to be in any way in conflict with my faith, or with my position as a priest”.
Priests who acted against the Pope and bishops
Both the statement of neutrality and the active campaigning for the “yes” vote were not only contrary to the guidance of Irish bishops, but also against the conclusions of Pope Francis and the world’s bishops at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family that re-iterated the Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage. The Synod’s Final Report summarised the Church’s teaching:
“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” (55).
It is instructive to examine statements made by members of ACP’s leadership since the “yes” vote from the perspective of Pope Francis’s analysis of apostasy in the light of Mgr Benson’s Lord of the World. In these statements we find elements of apostasy: arguments for the abandonment of the Church’s traditions and identity out of a preference for worldly proposals, and, a sense of adolescent progressivism. It appears to me that these statements from these priests suggest a single and faulty solution to the situation of the Church in Ireland that is entirely lacking in the one thing necessary – the Catholic Faith.
Consider the following statements.
Abandon teaching sexual morality
Fr Tony Flannery of the ACP proposes that the Irish church must abandon teaching young people about the Church’s doctrines on sexual morality for “at least a generation” because of his experience of giving school retreats at which young people told him they were “tired of the Church always saying NO when it came to anything to do with sex.”
Fr Flannery is right to criticise the reduction of the Church’s sexual ethics to only a list of negative prohibitions, but in response to the young people’s objections did he present the positive YES to sexual continence and chastity found in the Theology of the Body? Is he seriously suggesting that adults responsible for education and formation deny young people the wisdom and richness of the Church’s sexual morality for a generation?
Accept the worldly proposals of modernity
Fr Brendan Hoban of the ACP concludes that the overwhelming “yes” vote shows that the Church “is very much out of sync with the temper of its people”. According to Fr Hoban the Church lacks “the confidence to engage with modernity” and above all is “trailing too far behind its people.” He sees the ‘worldly proposals’ of modernity represented by same-sex ‘marriage’, abortion, contraception and divorce as an unstoppable force, “Trying to keep out the tide is always a failed enterprise. When will we learn that simple truth?” However, St Paul warns of the danger to Christians of abandoning the Faith handed to us from the Apostles for modern fads and fashions:
“The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect for themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes” (II Tim 4:3).
Adapt teachings to the spirit of secularism
Both Fr Tony Flannery and Fr Iggy Donovan appear to suggest that the Church must adapt its teaching to the “spirit of worldly secularism” because, according to them, the people are no longer receptive to the doctrines of the Church. Fr Flannery writes, “The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church”, and Fr Donovan says, “The church has to realise ordinary people are not listening to us any more”. But the question must be asked, with the catastrophic collapse of catechesis in Ireland over the past fifty years have ordinary people been given the opportunity to listen to God’s life-giving truths?
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin alluded to this crisis in catechesis when he admitted in the wake of the referendum that many young Catholics voted “yes” to legalise same-sex “marriage”. He said:
“I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church”.
Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson on the Apostasy of Priests
Writing over one hundred years ago Mgr. Benson foresaw what we ourselves are witnessing, the apostasy of priests unable to withstand the relentless pressure to conform to secularism. He movingly conveys the struggle between faith and betrayal in the conversation between the novel’s main protagonist, Fr Percy Franklin, and Fr Francis, who is losing his faith. We see the conversation through Fr Franklin’s eyes:
‘He understood perfectly what a strain it had been; he felt bitterly compassionate towards this poor creature who had become caught up somehow into the dizzy triumphant whirl of the New Humanity. External facts were horribly strong just now; and faith, except to one who had learned that Will and Grace were all and emotion nothing, was a child crawling about in the midst of some huge machinery: it might survive or it might not: but it required nerves of steel to keep steady. It was hard to know where blame could be assigned; yet Percy’s faith told him that there was blame due. In the ages of faith a very inadequate grasp of religion could pass muster; in these searching days none but the humble and the pure could stand the test for long, unless indeed they were protected by a miracle of ignorance. The alliance of Psychology and Materialism did indeed seem, looked at from one angle, to account for everything; it needed a robust supernatural perception to understand their practical inadequacy.’ (Lord of the World, p.35).
Though Mgr. Benson expresses compassion towards priests whose faith fails before the relentless ascendency of materialistic secularism, he also knows that they are culpable for their apostasy. Why do priests who have given their lives to serve Christ’s Church get to the point where they protest that fundamental truths of the faith are absurd and impossible? Mgr Benson concludes that they are guilty of pride, because they ‘dismiss all who believe in it as not merely mistaken, but unintelligent as well’. Mgr. Benson counters the prideful objections of apostate priests by simply pointing out, ‘it cannot be absurd so long as educated and virtuous people continue to hold it.’
In this situation of post-referendum Ireland, let us remember the 38% of Irish people who voted to uphold the Christian truth, beauty and goodness of marriage. After the shock of the referendum I know that many Irish Catholics, at home and around the world, are earnestly asking Our Lord to help Ireland. And from a great love for our priests let us pray for these chosen men who daily enable, through the miracle of the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lord Jesus Christ’s entry into our fallen world. May these priests again feel in their hands and hearts the eternal Truth who does not waver or desert His people but transforms our world.